Riviera Maya: All Inclusive Not Included
If you are looking for an all inclusive, resort guide in the Yucatán – THIS IS NOT IT. However, if you want something adventurous and off the beaten path, the Traveling Taveners have got you covered! We took our annual family trip with my mom, stepdad, and added one of my uncles and aunt to the mix. Here is our 10 day Riviera Maya trip, one that I recommend to everyone because this area it has a little bit of everything for everyone!
We have spent copious amounts of time in Baja, Mexico since my mom and stepdad have had a house there for the past 10 years or so. I personally have been down there many times a year, and then Kenny started coming down when we got together. We even spent our 15 day honeymoon in the Loreto area when we got married. We have traveled up and down the Baja many times and experienced much of the Western Mexican culture. Earlier, in March of this year, we went on a cruise to Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo (the second time for me, first time for Kenny). I say all this to say that Eastern Mexico was vastly different from what we were used to in Western Mexico. The biggest difference that we have found is the food – and lets be real, this is the most important part of traveling. A lot of people told us that the Maya spices were going to be very unique and different from American cuisine. I gotta tell you, don’t get your hopes up when traveling to the Yucatán, the food may not be all that you expect it be. We are definitely the ones to find the small roadside shacks and late night local eateries, (which we did do a few of on this trip), but the all around average food was not all that to write home about. I will surely tell you all about our favorite places, but if you’re used to the food of Western Mexico, don’t be too upset when the food of this side of Mexico isn’t all that you expect it to be. Especially the tortillas, because literally NO ONE makes flour tortillas (apparently a Baja specialty). Everyone makes corn tortillas, and those who do have four tortillas are most likely the Mission brand from the grocery store – so don’t expect anything too authentic. Even though the food was probably the most disappointing part of the trip we had a killer time seeing all that the Eastern side of Mexico had to offer. The easiest way to take on the Riviera Maya is by car so you can stop whenever and wherever you want, plus it can get a little pricey to try to hop on tour buses. Plus, you can check out the off the beaten paths in your own vehicle! This was our specific route, with our overnight stops pinned so you can see how much ground we covered. Chichén Itzá, our last stop, is only 3 hours inland so you make it around all these areas in relatively great time.
The weather during this time of year was very nice, not as hot as the summer months but still sweltering hot! It was about 85 degrees everyday, with about 80% humidity. We left the snow behind in Reno and that sweet, warm water of the ocean can sure solve all the winter blues!
This little coastal town is a perfect lunch stop on your way down to Playa del Carmen. Just 20 minutes from the Cancun Airport, we stopped here to eat since we knew we weren’t going to be spending any nights here. And I’m so glad we did! We actually stopped for lunch the first day and went back again the next day so we could have a little more time because it’s such a cute place.
Pangea is a good first stop for ceviche, chips, and Sol with a killer view of the ocean and just a little further on the horizon, the view of Cozumel. From any of these towns you can take a day trip over to explore Cozumel and if you haven’t been before, I recommend seeing it once in your travels.
The second restaurant I’d recommend stopping at is called El Merkadito, a place that our car rental agent had spoken very highly of. It too has a lovely view, further down the beach from Pangea and has a unique menu full of Asian inspired foods like Asian ceviche.
p.s. we ate a L O T of ceviche here, it’s one of Kenny’s favorite meals!
Playa Del Carmen
We spent 3 nights in PDC, on the beginning and the end of our trip. We had two very different experiences with both locations, one in a hidden little area and one in the heart of the party scene. First, we stayed in the most perfect, secluded bungalows in southern Playa. We would experience on the last few days of the trip just how much of a party city the town was, so we were grateful to know the peace and quiet in the beginning. One of my mom’s coworker’s and his wife have been adventuring down here for a couple years now and had found this lovely little place, thanks Don and Katie! Coco’s Cabañas is a great place to start your Riviera journey. Just a half hour drive from Cancun and only a 5 minutes drive from the town of Playa, you can nestle yourself in a little area of all inclusive without the all inclusive price. There is close beach access, private, clean rooms, and a sweet restaurant bar area complete with hammocks and a pool.
This beach was about a 5 minute walk/drive from Coco’s. We had the place pretty much to ourselves this afternoon!
We enjoyed wood fired brick oven pizza by candlelight on our first night, plus the specialty drink, the Annihilator.
The cherry on top of our stay in Coco’s was Daniel, who is also a Christian, and is using his time here as his ministry. We prayed together before we left, and he was such a sweet gift to us on the beginning of our vacation.
Coco’s has an extensive free breakfast spread and unlimited coffee, which is pretty much the most important part of the morning, let’s be real!
On the last two nights of our trip, we stayed in the heart of all the happenings in Playa del Carmen. Although it was loud and most of us didn’t sleep because of the all night music, it is a really fun environment with lots of cute eateries, bars, and entertainment. We found rooms at Blue Parrot 5th Avenue on the fly for our last two nights. It’s not the most spectacular digs, but it’s enough for a couple of nights and it’s clean!
That’s the cute courtyard area!
We spent both nights here walking around the streets and shopping (even bought some Birkenstock’s at the peso price – major score!) Make sure to walk around and pick a couple places to do drinks, then journey on to find dinner, and maybe another place for dessert. There’s so many fun options, you’ll certainly be able to find whatever tickles your fancy! On our first night, we chose McCarthy’s Irish Pub since their happy hour was from like 2-8pm! 20 cent wings and two for one beers were calling our name!
Here’s some of the cute places we walked through on our time in Playa del Carmen.
We had drinks at this cute Italian restaurant, called Ambasciata D’Italia, we had our favorite German drinks Aperol!
We found a little bar restaurant to have dessert and listen to live music in. One thing about Playa del Carmen is that there is so much talent! Everywhere we walked there were street musicians and dance groups trying to get a little recognition, and man were they GOOD!! Also, I’ll add to this, that about every 10 feet there’s someone asking you if you’d like to buy drugs; sometimes nonchalant, sometimes blatantly out there. We just always made sure to have a creative comment back to the dealers, when we didn’t just completely ignore them. You’ve been warned! 🙂
Another must go is Aldea Corazón where we had breakfast and dinner the same day because it was such good service and yummy food! Plus, it’s tucked in the jungle and there’s a cenote that runs through the restaurant. The ambience is everything!!
An hour south of Cancun, you will find the coastal resort town known for the marine life, most especially turtles! We stayed two nights at Villa Tortugas, the C U T E S T Italian hotel – complete with Italian hosts and 2 cats straight from Florence!
One of the best restaurants we hit in the Riviera was on the beach in Akumal, a Swiss Family Robinson-esque place called La Buena Vida.
This was probably one of the most authentic meals we had down here and the drinks were cheap and tasty! You must also head up on top of one of the tree houses, where they only allow adults to have drinks – which seems unsafe – but it’s a pretty sweet place to watch the sun go down that’s for sure.
Whenever you find it, try the dish cochinita pibil – a slow roasted pork dish marinated in spices and cooked in banana leaves. It is quite savory!
Head to the beach to snorkel, find the turtles, and shop some of the local artisan shops. There’s a public parking lot close to the beach that only costs $2.50 for all day parking, so make sure to grab your ice chest and beach towels and head on down.
We came the first day pretty late in the afternoon when there was mainly just locals around, but when we returned earlier the next day there was a lot more people. The Akumal beach is technically a protected cove, and there will be people all along the beach trying to get you to pay for a guide and a life vest. The first day we swam completely on our own without a guide in sight, so we weren’t sure how valid these people were but just decided against snorkeling all together that day due to high winds. You can certainly take the risk of heading out on your own and hoping no one notices, but the second day they seemed pretty strict on rules. The marine life here is pretty fragile, so look without touching!
If you want some more local cuisine, head across the highway into the local side of town to find Cosme’s Taqueria. We bought our cook a beer, so we could actually get the local price and chowed down on the kind of Mexican food that were used to.
When researching the Riviera Maya, you will probably come across all the adventure parks of the area. I don’t think you can wrong with any of them, but we chose Xplor. The other two parks that you’ll probably see the most info about are Xel-Ha (Shell-Ha) and Xcaret (Ish-Care-Et), which are both considerably bigger than Xplor. We were mainly choosing between Xplor and Xel-Ha but ended up going with Xplor because there seemed to be more adventurous activities. Xplor has two zip lining courses – each with 7 or 8 lines, two amphibious vehicle tracks, an underground rafting/swimming river, a smoothie bar, and an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. Tickets to all three parks run about $70-90, and when you buy tickets online at least 10 days in advance they are 15% off. We complete failed and forgot our GoPro and my mom didn’t have a memory card for her’s, so we have literally no personal photos or videos from our day here. One of the best parts about these adventure parks is that their restrictions are pretty minimal, where in the US natural attractions like the ones found here would be unattainable and most likely closed off to public access. That doesn’t mean to disrespect the natural land, but just keep in mind that you can do a lot more than you can in the states – and the freedom is quite refreshing!
My mom and I had to go together since we were too underweight to go on our own!
Plan on getting very wet during all activities and DON’T FORGET YOUR GOPRO! 🙁 All of these parks also have a separate nighttime ticket that you can purchase if you want a little extra thrill to do everything in the dark – look for the “Fuego” tickets.
Tulum was the start of our Maya ruin adventures. It is a not only a beautiful coastal town with resorts and private beaches, but it’s also a lively, backpacking-type town full of character. It has everything from party bars to local brain taco joints and the BEST shrimp fajitas I’ve had in 23 years of life.
I’ll be honest, the only letdown of our time in Tulum was our accommodations. I was so excited to have my family see what hostels were like and Tulum has quite a few hostels to choose from. I went with Crucero Hostel, based on the reviews (and pictures) I found on Hostelworld. This place looked so rad from the pictures online, and unfortunately it just wasn’t the same when we got there. We got a room that was falling apart, and truthfully pretty outdated and dingy. There was no A/C and it was 2 miserable nights trying to fight over the two fans. There are rooms that do have A/C, so if you find those rooms you might have a better experience than us! The couple of upsides of this place are how close it is to the ruins (literally right next door to the entrance), the free bikes that we could use to ride around, and the super yum fresh breakfast!
The absolute best food we had on this trip was here in Tulum at La Coqueta, a place that our Akumal Italian hosts had recommended to us. Go for the shrimp fajitas and the margaritas!
A couple other restaurants to try are La Malquerida for 2 for 1 drinks,
Taquerias El Nero for authentic, cheap tacos with all the locals (seriously, I think we ordered 30 tacos, 3 drinks, and two desserts for $12!),
and the Flor de Michoacan‘s outdoor patio for fresh smoothies!
The actual ruins of Tulum are a can’t miss. Make sure you have enough sunscreen because unlike its Maya ruin counterparts of Coba and Chichén Itzá, there is no jungle protection whatsoever. The landscape of the Tulum ruins is quite beautiful, nestled on the edge of cliffs overlooking the beaches below. You can actually access the private beaches of Tulum with your entrance fee, so if you get too hot during your tour you can meander down to the water and cool off. There are tour guides available for hire but we just walked around and read the placards around the buildings to try to get an understanding of the civilization at Tulum. Due to its location right on the coast, Tulum was a trading seaport, mainly of jade and turquoise. They were in power from 400 A.D. to 1816 when the Spanish Cubans conquered and took over the Yucatán. It’s a great first stop on your tour of the Yucatán ruins!
Located about 45 minutes west of Tulum, Cobá is not only an actual town but also the smallest of the ruins we explored. Although there is not a lot going on in the town, the ruins are what brings people to the area. It is much larger than what meets the eye, as only 2% of the archeological site has been excavated. There is so many interesting things to learn from Cobá and I definitely recommend getting a guide for this area since there are no signs around to read yourself. Cobá has the tallest temple in the Yucatán (79 ft.) – that is climbable! – and also a small ball court. If you’re familiar with the cartoon movie “El Dorado” you already have a picture of what I’m talking about! Our guide only cost us about $300 pesos ($15 USD) and shared so much insight and information, we would have never learned some of the stuff we did had we been on our own. One key difference between here and the bigger city system of Chichén Itzá is that Cobá did NOT partake in human sacrifice. the winner of the infamous ballgame just got to move up in social class, rather than be sacrificed to the gods. One really interesting fact we learned from Cobá was the road system connecting Cobá to other cities, on what was called “sacbe’s”. Since it is generally so warm in the area, the Maya people would travel these trade routes in the dark, early hours of the morning with no light. To combat the night blindness, they would line the road with limestone and jade to reflect the moonlight for guidance. The best place to stay in Cobá is Hotel Sac Be, that has a store and restaurant on site. It’s the cleanest and cheapest place to stay, with nice hosts and good food!
“Stelae”: these pillars was the Maya’s way of writing down what happened in their community; births, deaths, marriages, etc.
This town is located another hour west of Cobá and the only reason we actually knew of this town was because of one of our favorite Netflix travel shows. I’m so glad we randomly watched the episode about the Yucatán because Valladolid reminded me so much of a little European gem. It has a quaint little center part of town, complete with a church and shopping area that is worth a day trip to.
You MUST eat at El Mesón del Marqués, and try their regional dishes – especially the two chicken dishes that they make right at your table!
There is also a cenote right near the city center; we didn’t stop there but it was recommended to us – so there’s always next time!
The mother of the all the ruins in the Yucatán, Chichén Itzá is the ultimate must visit in Eastern Mexico. We stayed in the town of Pisté, about a 5 minute drive from the entrance of the ruins, at Hotel Chichen Itza. This was the perfect home base for Chichén Itzá and Pisté is a really hopping town that you can do stuff in at night. We were there when the local fair was going on, so one of the nights we walked down to a couple blocks and hung out with the locals at one of the taco stands. We probably ate our weight in al pastor tacos that night – which you all should too! We also succumbed to a couple of the local kids selling goods and bought our new buddy Miguel some dinner the second night we had dinner in town – plus my mom and Joe even took a taxi ride in the cutest taxis I’ve ever seen!
We got up pretty early to get to the ruins – 1) for the coolness of the morning and 2) so we could hopefully beat the crowds! Chichén Itzá is considerably more expensive than any of the other ruins, but it is one of the 7 (modern) Wonders of the World so it is totally worth it! You definitely want a guide here, to learn about all the interesting facts that you can’t find online! Also, make sure to shop around in the shops and take some Maya relics home with you. Lastly, make sure you walk the sacbe to see the cenote where divers have found bones and religious artifacts where they believe that human sacrifice took place. You can also come here for the night show, where they do a whole light performance on the ruins, but keep in mind that you have to pay a separate entrance fee so make sure to budget accordingly.
No matter what you do, The Riviera Maya has something unique for everyone. It can be a very inexpensive vacation that allows you to see so many different facets of the peninsula and experience so much of what Maya Mexico has to offer. Let us know your favorite places and if you go to any of ours, we would love to hear!
The Traveling Taveners
P.S. If you happened to notice that I’m wearing the same dress in most of these photos, I actually was doing that on purpose! For the past two years, I have participated in a social justice campaign called Dressember where girls across the world wear dresses for the whole month of December to raise money and awareness for the epidemic of human trafficking. The funds go to two social justice organizations called IJM and A21 that do global work and rescues of people still trapped in modern day slavery. If you’d like to learn more, you can check it out at www.dressember.org